Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan had the talent to play for soccer academies in high school. But he elected to stay at El Rancho High in Pico Rivera, Calif. It was a decision rooted in community and loyalty.
Cristian Roldan wasn’t just choosing for himself when he opted to play out his final year of high school.
El Rancho High is the focal point of Pico Rivera, Calif., a town of 63,000 residents packed in over nine square miles just east of Los Angeles. The close-knit community, more than 90 percent Hispanic, uses El Rancho as its scholastic, sports and social hub, the school’s lights often on late into the night hosting one event after another.
So, the locals noticed in 2012 when an emerging El Rancho soccer star turned down joining academies run by the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA to give his school a title shot.
Clint Dempsey has a goal and an assist as the Sounders defeat the Galaxy 3-0 in Carson, Calif. Story, C3
“My family played a big part in that,” said Roldan, a Sounders midfielder who returned Sunday to nearby Carson, Calif., in the Sounders’ 3-0 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy. “We had lived in Pico Rivera all of our lives. My older brother went to high school there and my younger brother was planning to as well. I made really good relationships there with my coach and my teammates. So, I think all of those things played in to it.”
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By doing so, Roldan committed what many soccer observers felt was career suicide. Teenagers almost never turn down pro-run academies.
But Roldan never did anything much like a typical kid. He’d starred in a television commercial as a 8-year-old during the 2006 World Cup, dribbling a “ball” forged from plastic bags against an urban L.A. backdrop.
After that brief celebrity flirtation, he dropped off the soccer map. Except in Pico Rivera, where by 2011-12 the El Rancho Dons had assembled perhaps their best soccer team ever, going 26-0 and getting ranked fifth nationally before being upset in their division final game.
Roldan, the division’s top player as a junior, had to decide whether to join 15 other returning seniors looking for another title shot.
“That 2012 team was probably stronger on paper than the 2013 team,” Roldan’s high-school coach, Dominic Picon, said. “Him coming back was really about a score to settle. About wiping away the bad taste in our mouths from what happened at the end of that junior year.”
The town’s only high school had won a national football title in 1966. But changing demographics and the influx of Hispanic families gradually made the soccer team a community rallying point.
Roldan did return that final 2012-2013 season; scoring a record 54 goals with 30 assists. El Rancho not only won the division final, but its first Southern California Regional Championship – the de facto state title – in an upset over top-ranked San Clemente.
Roldan’s exploits earned him Gatorade National Boys Soccer Player of the Year honors, punctuated when ESPN cameras entered his El Rancho biology class and retired U.S. soccer star Alexi Lalas informed him he’d been chosen.
“It meant a lot to the community and the school because we reached heights we’d never touched before,’’ Picon said. “Everybody knows who the El Rancho athletes are in the community and when somebody has the success that Cristian has had, obviously everybody knows who he is. Knows about him. He brought true national recognition to a very small community.’’
Picon taught U.S. history and Introduction to Law for 14 years at El Rancho, seeing Roldan’s older brother Cesar pass through as a three-sport athlete, as well as his younger brother, Alex – a member of that championship 2012-13 side. Education mattered at the school and Picon says that played a role in Roldan’s family not pressuring him to go the academy route.
Cesar, now a trainer with the Colorado Rapids, said his family didn’t understand the politics of the academy and youth national-team system. What mattered most to them, and his brother, was sticking with the core of friends he’d played alongside since age 8 or 9 in the town’s minor soccer programs.
“Playing with those kids for six-plus years together and then going to that high school together really strengthened that brotherhood bond,” he said. “And they were pretty good as well. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A perfect storm to do something the town had never accomplished before.’’
But there were repercussions. After his junior year, Picon sent videotape of Roldan to about 30 NCAA Division I schools. For six months, none responded.
“Long term it probably wasn’t the best idea,’’ Roldan said of spurning the academies. “But short term, I made a lot of good memories, won a pair of championships there. I was really proud of the moment. It may have hindered the recruiting process in going to college and bigger schools. But I think it all worked out and I’m really proud of how it happened.”
Once Roldan’s record-setting exploits drew national attention his senior year, bigger universities finally began calling. Roldan was leaning toward Cal State University Bakersfield, but changed his mind after visiting the University of Washington.
Four years later, Roldan is a blossoming MLS star, one viewed as team captain material. Every December, he returns to Pico Rivera to watch El Rancho games and participate in alumni events.
“It’s always a pleasure to be around them,’’ he said. “There’s a lot of history there for our family.’’
History a teenager’s unorthodox soccer decision helped create.